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Beyond the Boycott

Beyond the Boycott: Labor Rights, Human Rights, and Transnational Activism

Gay W. Seidman
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    Beyond the Boycott
    Book Description:

    As the world economy becomes increasingly integrated, companies can shift production to wherever wages are lowest and unions weakest. How can workers defend their rights in an era of mobile capital? With national governments forced to compete for foreign investment by rolling back legal protections for workers, fair trade advocates are enlisting consumers to put market pressure on companies to treat their workers fairly. In Beyond the Boycott, sociologist Gay Seidman asks whether this non-governmental approach can reverse the “race to the bottom” in global labor standards. Beyond the Boycott examines three campaigns in which activists successfully used the threat of a consumer boycott to pressure companies to accept voluntary codes of conduct and independent monitoring of work sites. The voluntary Sullivan Code required American corporations operating in apartheid-era South Africa to improve treatment of their workers; in India, the Rugmark inspection team provides ‘social labels’ for handknotted carpets made without child labor; and in Guatemala, COVERCO monitors conditions in factories producing clothing under contract for major American brands. Seidman compares these cases to explore the ingredients of successful campaigns, as well as the inherent limitations facing voluntary monitoring schemes. Despite activists’ emphasis on educating individual consumers to support ethical companies, Seidman finds that, in practice, they have been most successful when they mobilized institutions—such as universities, churches, and shareholder organizations. Moreover, although activists tend to dismiss states’ capabilities, all three cases involved governmental threats of trade sanctions against companies and countries with poor labor records. Finally, Seidman points to an intractable difficulty of independent workplace monitoring: since consumers rarely distinguish between monitoring schemes and labels, companies can hand pick monitoring organizations, selecting those with the lowest standards for working conditions and the least aggressive inspections. Transnational consumer movements can increase the bargaining power of the global workforce, Seidman argues, but they cannot replace national governments or local campaigns to expand the meaning of citizenship. As trade and capital move across borders in growing volume and with greater speed, civil society and human rights movements are also becoming more global. Highly original and thought-provoking, Beyond the Boycott vividly depicts the contemporary movement to humanize globalization—its present and its possible future.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-488-0
    Subjects: Business, Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
  3. About the Author
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Chapter 1 Citizens, Markets, and Transnational Labor Activism
    (pp. 1-14)

    The press release called it the dawn of a new era: after years of difficult negotiations, multinational corporations, labor activists, and human rights groups had agreed “to work together as equal partners to make significant improvements in labor conditions in garment factories” around the world (U.S. Department of Labor 1998). With footwear and garment factories moving beyond the reach of American law, corporate codes of conduct and independent monitoring offered an alternative strategy that might help workers from New York to Central America, Los Angeles to Southeast Asia.

    Despite the internal tensions that plagued it, the Apparel Industry Partnership (AIP)...

  6. Chapter 2 Labor Rights as Human Rights: Regulation in the Context of a “Thinned” National State
    (pp. 15-46)

    What does it mean to redefine labor rights as human rights? Transnational campaigns often try to mobilize global support by invoking universal standards rather than locally enforced labor law. But in the process, labor activists often abandon older labor strategies, which tended to focus on expanding definitions of citizenship and national regulation. In this chapter, I contrast an approach based on the human rights model—using consumer boycotts and privatized, voluntary regulatory schemes to raise labor standards—to the older, more state-centric approach, which emphasizes the construction of national labor law and industrial relations frameworks. What assumptions about power, voice,...

  7. Chapter 3 Monitoring Multinationals: Lessons from the Anti-Apartheid Era
    (pp. 47-71)

    One of the most frequently cited examples of transnational corporate monitoring involves labor standards only tangentially: the nearly twenty-year effort to improve the “corporate citizenship” of American companies in South Africa by promoting corporate efforts to undermine apartheid, a system of racial oppression that went far beyond the workplace.¹ But workplace reforms came first, and in many ways such reforms served as the cornerstone of Sullivan’s code of conduct. American companies were asked to reconstruct their South African workplaces as beacons of enlightenment, demonstrating that good business practices could start with treating all employees fairly.

    Today business ethicists frequently identify...

  8. Chapter 4 Social Labels, Child Labor, and Monitoring in the Indian Carpet Industry
    (pp. 72-101)

    The conditions in which India’s child carpet weavers work are heartrending: emaciated young boys sit before massive looms in dark, dusty weaving sheds, their legs dangling off wooden planks into pits dug into dirt floors, working as virtual captives for brutal employers by day, sleeping in cold sheds far from their families at night. Repeatedly criticized by Indian activists and condemned by transnational organizations, the South Asian handwoven carpet industry, where starving and stunted young children work under medieval conditions, has become a global symbol of brutal child labor. Transformed in recent decades from ancient craft tradition into Dickensian export...

  9. Chapter 5 Constructing a Culture of Compliance in Guatemala
    (pp. 102-131)

    The word “sweatshop” has long evoked the garment industry: poor young women bent over sewing machines in dimly lit, badly ventilated rooms, working long hours for pitiful wages. Sadly, that image is not outdated. Exposés from Los Angeles to Bangladesh regularly reveal conditions not much different from those which prevailed in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory one hundred years ago. The seamy underside of globalization is revealed in clothing factories around the world, where the confluence of poverty, gendered labor markets, and racial hierarchies force workers, mainly young women, to accept conditions that give harsh meaning to the term “race...

  10. Chapter 6 Citizenship at Work
    (pp. 132-144)

    This study began with some rather straightforward questions. What are the characteristics of successful consumer-based campaigns? How have transnational activists managed to persuade corporations to accede to the independent monitoring of workplace codes of conduct, and what has been their impact? By comparing widely cited transnational interventions, I sought to discover some common characteristics that would help explain the success of some of these campaigns. How do activists persuade corporations to cooperate? What kinds of issues attract international audiences? What kinds of campaigns prompt companies to try to prove they are “good corporate citizens” and submit to independent monitors?


  11. Notes
    (pp. 145-146)
  12. References
    (pp. 147-168)
  13. Index
    (pp. 169-176)